Farewell my concubine?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 2011, 12:00am


Officials in Guangdong are planning a novel take on sex education classes. Instead of just imparting the facts of life to their pupils, they intend to hold special lessons in self-respect and self-reliance for young girls in elementary and middle schools. The aim is to dissuade them from becoming mistresses to rich older men, while encouraging them to carve out worthwhile careers for themselves.

There is no doubt that many young women think that snagging a wealthy man, whether as a husband or a 'sugar daddy', is the best route to a comfortable life. A recent online survey in the China Youth Daily revealed that almost 60 per cent of respondents knew someone who wanted to marry, or gain the patronage of, a rich and powerful man to achieve their dreams.

Consequently, some academics have welcomed Guangdong's initiative as an admirable attempt to refute the belief that women need a male benefactor to get ahead, as well as boosting the self-esteem of girls at an age when they can feel vulnerable.

In fact, though, the scheme reveals inadvertently just how deeply ingrained sexist attitudes towards women are on the mainland. For a start, it assumes that it is only girls who need to be re-educated. But if they have to be told that becoming a mistress is a negative step, then surely male pupils of the same age should be informed that taking one is not such a clever idea either.

Just as generally only the women involved in the mainland's mistress culture become targets of opprobrium, so the gender disparity in China is analysed entirely from a male point of view. Although far more boys than girls are born in some parts of the country, media reports say nothing about the need to dispel the belief in rural areas that male children are more valuable and desirable than female ones. Instead, they highlight only that the discrepancy will ensure that, by 2020, some 30 million men will be unable to find wives.

Examining issues that affect women from a male perspective is perhaps the ultimate proof that far from holding up half the sky, as Mao Zedong famously proclaimed, the mainland's females remain second-class citizens.

The press, too, has a long history of reinforcing stereotypes about women. Rather than, say, focusing on the growing number of female entrepreneurs, the media prefers more salacious stories, like that of Li Wei, the woman who climbed out of poverty to power and riches by sleeping with a succession of Communist Party cadres in Yunnan and Qingdao .

Her role in the corruption scandal got her onto the cover of Caijing magazine in February. That in itself is unusual, given that it is models and actresses who feature on the covers of most mainland publications. But just as that is partly responsible for the disturbing number of young women who now believe that winning a beauty contest or reality TV show is the passport to a better life, so the publicity Li received - though much of it is adverse - may still convince some women that becoming a mistress is a decent career choice.

In all societies, attitudes to women stem from the very top. On the mainland, there are precious few female faces to be seen in senior government positions. That is perhaps why gender discrimination remains so widespread, with employers able to get away with firing women when they become pregnant, or even not employing them because they might do so. It is also the reason why, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, women in China get paid a third less than men on average, which is more than double the average gap worldwide.

Even in government jobs and state-run enterprises, gender inequality has been enshrined in the law, with the compulsory retirement age for women at 55, as opposed to 60 for men, which means women receive lower pensions for a lifetime of work.

Lessons in self-respect are all very well, but until the mainland introduces meaningful gender discrimination and employment laws, there will be plenty of bright girls who will choose an easy life with a rich man rather than try to struggle up the career ladder.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist